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Jan. 25, 2012 /FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE / Photos Attached
Media Contact: Marla Carpenter, 770-3337,



WINSTON-SALEM – The University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA) family is mourning the loss of Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans, a founder of the school and a beloved friend, patron, and benefactor.

Mrs. Semans, of Durham, died this morning. She was 91.

Perhaps best known for carrying on the legacy of Duke University’s founding family, she emerged as one of North Carolina’s greatest philanthropists, supporting the arts and education. She was preceded in death by her husband, Dr. James H. Semans, who died in 2005 and served as the first chairman of the School of the Arts’ board of trustees.

“Mary Semans was the mother of UNCSA, and like the great mother she was, her love for the school was unconditional,” said UNCSA Chancellor John Mauceri. “That she led, supported and inspired this school from the moment it was imagined to the cusp of its 50th birthday was in and of itself miraculous. It is hard to imagine going forward without her.

“Now it is our responsibility to carry on as she demonstrated every day of her life, with passion, kindness, wisdom and determination,” Mauceri continued. “If there was one word to describe Mary Semans it would be ‘beautiful’ in every sense of that word.”

Mrs. Semans served as a trustee of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts for more than 20 years, and was serving as an emeritus trustee at the time of her death. She most recently attended the September board meeting in person, and the December board meeting via phone. Her grandson, Charles C. Lucas III, is chairman of the UNCSA Board of Trustees. Mrs. Semans also was serving as an emeritus member of the UNCSA Board of Visitors at the time of her death.

Chancellor Emeritus Alex Ewing said: “Mary Semans has been the heart and soul and most passionate champion of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Ever since it was founded nearly half a century ago, she believed in it, fought for it, supported it day after day, year after year, never relenting in her conviction that it served a vital function in the life of the community, the state, and the nation.

Photo by Steve Davis

Mrs. Semans

Mrs. Semans with Douglas Zinn, executive director of the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, left, and UNCSA Chancellor John Mauceri, right.

Mrs. Semans with student Baron Fenwick, Chancellor Mauceri and Lou Anne Crumpler.

“She loved, and in turn was truly and deeply loved, by the students and faculty and staff and all who cared for the school,” Ewing continued. “As we grieve our loss, even more we will always cherish her memory.”

UNCSA School of Drama Dean Gerald Freedman said: “Mary Semans has been my dear friend, champion, and confidante for over 20 years. Somehow when Mary was in the room everything was better, there was meaning, purpose and hope. She and her husband, Dr. Jim Semans, were two of the most remarkable people I have ever known. Totally selfless, generous of spirit and pocketbook, always serving a greater purpose.

“Her legacy will live on vividly,” Freedman continued, “and she and Jim will continue to inspire generations of young artists to reach for their dreams. I can't begin to express how much I will miss Mary, but her passion, vision and energy will live on as long as there is a University of North Carolina School of the Arts!”

The Semanses served a multiplicity of volunteer leadership roles at the School of the Arts. Dr. Semans was selected in 1964 by then-Gov. Terry Sanford as first chairman of the school's board of trustees. He served as chairman for 17 consecutive years, when his wife succeeded him on the board. Mrs. Semans served on the board from 1981 until she was no longer eligible to serve, in 1989, when she was named an honorary trustee.

The Semanses also individually held memberships on the school's Board of Visitors and Foundation board. In addition, both served on the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts Board of Advisors.

The Semanses were the single largest contributors each year to the school's former International Music Program, traveling with the participants for more than 30 years on the European tours. They also contributed to the school's International Dance Program and Drama exchange with the then-Soviet Union, as well as other school projects.

The couple established an endowment fund for the school's library, which is named for them.

In addition, they established three grant programs for students, including the Semans Art Fund, which supports UNCSA students’ creative projects and was said to be closer to their hearts than any other cause. Dr. and Mrs. Semans also established numerous scholarship funds for students.

They funded the NCSA Oral History Project, compiled by Douglas Zinn, which is part of the book, "A Passionate Preference: The Story of the North Carolina School of the Arts," by Leslie Banner.

In 1990, the couple received the first Giannini Society Medallion ever awarded by the School of the Arts, in honor of their service to the school. They received honorary doctorates from the school in 2001.

Together they also received the North Carolina Award, for their contributions to the arts and to the state, in 1971 and 1986; the Morrison Award, for their contribution to the arts in North Carolina, in 1973; and the North Carolina Philanthropy Award, in 1997.

Mary D.B.T. Semans received her bachelor’s degree from Duke, where she majored in history. She was chairman of the board of trustees of The Duke Endowment, vice chairman of The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, and trustee emeritus of Duke University and the North Carolina Museum of Art. She was chairman of the Executive Mansion Fine Arts Committee, and board member of the Kenan Institute in Ethics at Duke University and the North Carolina Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. On the national level, she served as a trustee of the National Humanities Center, an associate of the Council on Foundations, and a member of the National Advisory Council on Vocational Rehabilitation.

She won numerous awards for her work, including the National Governors’ Association Distinguished Service Award, for service to the arts in North Carolina and the nation; the University of North Carolina’s University Award, for her contributions to higher education, health care and the fine arts; and, most recently, the Caldwell Award for her contributions to the humanities in North Carolina.

Funeral services will be held at 2 p.m. Monday, Jan. 30, at Duke Chapel in Durham.



DURHAM — Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans, a lifelong philanthropist and civic leader in North Carolina, died on January 25, 2012, in Durham. She was 91.

Mrs. Semans devoted herself to education, children’s services, health care and the arts, and her compassion for others helped shape and sustain significant programs and institutions across the Carolinas and the nation.

She was born into a family of industrialists and philanthropists. Her grandfather, Benjamin Newton Duke, his brother, James B. Duke, and their father, Washington Duke, were involved in many business ventures, the most significant of which were the American Tobacco Company and Duke Power Company, now Duke Energy Corporation. Over the years, they were the chief benefactors of Trinity College in Durham, which later became Duke University. In 1924, James B. Duke established The Duke Endowment in Charlotte, one of the largest private foundations in the country and the largest foundation in the Southeast.

Mrs. Semans carried on the family legacy through her own foundations and philanthropic work, serving on numerous boards as a trustee and advisor, and acting as a champion for all types of humanitarian causes. She was a Trustee of The Duke Endowment for 55 years, and served as its first female Chairman from 1982-2001. After 2001, she continued serving as Chair Emerita.

Mrs. Semans also served as a Trustee of many educational institutions in the Carolinas, including Duke University, Davidson College, Shaw University, Louisburg College, Converse College and the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.

She was instrumental in establishing the Duke University Museum of Art, which became the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, and the museum’s Great Hall bears her name.

Philanthropy, Mrs. Semans once said in a speech, is not about charity or noblesse oblige. “But the joy of giving. The good feeling of sharing. The giving that benefits the giver as well as the recipient.” “We’re all here for each other,” she told a reporter. “I take very seriously this business of treating your neighbor as yourself.”

Mrs. Semans was born in New York City. Her parents were Mary Duke Biddle, the only daughter of Benjamin Duke, and Anthony Joseph Drexel Biddle Jr., a General in the United States Army. Her mother was a noted philanthropist who carried on the family’s support of Duke University and her father held several high-level government posts, including Ambassador to Exiled Countries during World War II and Ambassador to Spain.

Apart from a childhood in New York City, Mrs. Semans lived most of her life in Durham. She attended the Hewitt School in New York and then enrolled in the Woman’s College at Duke University at age 15.

In 1938, she married Josiah Trent, a surgical intern who would become the chief of Duke Hospital’s division of thoracic surgery. The couple developed a passion for rare books, including books about the history of medicine and many by and about Walt Whitman. Dr. Trent died of cancer after 10 years of marriage.

As a young widow and mother of four girls, she ran for a seat on the Durham City Council and became the first woman elected in 1951. She served as mayor pro-tem from 1953-55. While in office, she advocated for civil rights, affordable housing, cultural enrichment opportunities, and humane medical care, and was named one of the city’s “Mothers of the Year” in 1952.

She married James H. Semans, a Duke University surgeon and urologist, in 1953. In their 52 years of marriage, they had three children.

Mrs. Semans, along with her husband, took active roles in public service. In the 1960s, they helped lead the establishment of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, the nation’s first state-supported conservatory for the arts. Mrs. Semans served as a Trustee of the school for more than 20 years and continued as an honorary member of the board.

Mrs. Semans also served on the board of the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, established by her mother to support arts, educational and charitable initiatives in North Carolina and New York City.

In 1971, the couple received the North Carolina Award, the state’s highest civilian honor, for their contributions to the fine arts. “They personify the best leadership of their era,” the citation read. The couple also received the National Brotherhood Award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews “for distinguished service in the field of human relations.”

Dr. Semans died in 2005 at age 94.

Mrs. Semans was known for her keen mind, graciousness, genuine concern for others and boundless energy. Among her multiple affiliations, she served on the boards of the Executive Mansion Fine Arts Committee, which was charged with restoring and preserving the North Carolina Governor’s residence; the North Carolina Museum of Art; the North Carolina Symphony; the North Carolina Center for World Languages and Cultures; the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University; and the National Humanities Center.

She also served as chairman of the Governor’s Study Committee on Vocational Rehabilitation and was a member of the National Citizens Advisory Commission on Vocational Rehabilitation, appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Mrs. Semans also served as a member of the board of directors of First Union Corporation.

In 1986, she received one of the first two University Medals for Distinguished Meritorious Service at Duke. Her honorary degrees came from Duke, Campbell University, Davidson College, Elon University, Furman University, N.C. Central University, North Carolina Wesleyan College, Pfeiffer University, Shaw University and UNC Chapel Hill.

Mrs. Semans received many other honors and awards including, among others, the National Governors Association Distinguished Service Award in 1995 for her support of the arts; a Citation for Distinguished Public Service presented by North Carolina Citizens for Business and Industry; the Humanitarian Freedom Award presented by the Durham Chapter of Hadassah; the North Carolina Philanthropy Award; and the North Caroliniana Society Award.

She received the Meritorious Service Award from the North Carolina Hospital Association in 2006 and in 2009 she was inducted into the North Carolina Women’s Hall of Fame.

Mrs. Semans is survived by seven children: Mary Trent Jones of Abingdon, Va.; Sarah Trent Harris of Charlotte; Dr. Rebecca Trent Kirkland of Houston, Texas; Barbara Trent Kimbrell of Sullivan’s Island, S.C.; Jenny Semans Koortbojian of Durham; James Duke Biddle Trent Semans of Chapel Hill; and Beth Semans Hubbard of Los Angeles, Calif.; 16 grandchildren; and 29 great-grandchildren.

A funeral service is planned for 2 p.m., Monday, January 30, at Duke Chapel. Funeral arrangements are being handled by Howerton & Bryan Funeral Home.

Memorials may be made to the Semans Art Fund, c/o University of North Carolina School of the Arts; the Duke Medicine Heart Center; the Duke Medicine Pulmonary Division Fund; Josiah Charles Trent Memorial Foundation Endowment, c/o Duke University; or the Frank Neelon Fund for Literature in Medicine, c/o Triangle Community Foundation.